Bob Dylan wakes up this morning a Broadway star.
Unlike Bruce Springsteen, he didn’t have to set foot on stage. Unlike Cher, Carole King, and so many others of his era, Bob didn’t even show up for his premiere. He didn’t even meet the people who put it together.
But “Girl from the North Country,” with a book by Conor McPherson, who directed the musical (or play with music), opened last night to standing ovations, cheers, rave reviews. The only Dylan in the audience was a college age granddaughter, who loved it.
“Girl” comes from London and New York’s Public Theater, where Oskar Eustis guided it into a break out hit. It’s so genuine, original, authentic, moving, and gorgeous, it reminded me in many ways of “Hamilton.” This show simply takes your breath away. It’s easily the best “jukebox” musical anyone’s ever seen.
That’s because McPherson and Simon Hale, the musical director, took 20 Dylan songs– some well known, some not– and reimagined them with country and gospel flavors. Then they put them in the mouths of a startling talented cast, starting with Mare Winningham, who steals the show (which isn’t easy to do in this group) and secures herself a Tony nomination at the very least. Winningham, who has never sung like this on screen or stage, is a revelation.
Winningham heads a formidable cast. Her co-star is Jay O. Sanders, a theater veteran for a couple of decades, who will now be an “overnight sensation.” He anchors the musical in profound ways.
And this is how you know “Girl from the North Country” is great: the New York Post didn’t get it. They called it “a dud.” They liked “West Side Story.” And that’s really a baseline for everything in this world.
The word went out on this one. In the audience, up and down, stars: Little Stevie van Zandt and wife Maureen, Rosie O’Donnell, Bryan Darcy James, Martha Plimpton, Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy, Laura Osnes, Brooke Shields, Jesse Eisenberg, Mary Louise Parker, Kathy Najimy, Jane Krakowski with David Rockwell, Ruben Blades (who’s married to one of the sensational cast members, Luba Mason, plus “ER” star Anthony Edwards, who’s Winningham’s boyfriend of five years, and theater and movie great Lois Smith. James Franco was spotted, but refused requests by photographers to take his picture. When fame turns into infamy, it’s rough!
So McPherson built a book around Dylan’s songs without ever meeting him. It’s set in Duluth, Minnesota in the fall of 1934, a bleak place after the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Winningham and Sanders have been married a long time, he’s having an affair, she’s off her rocker in a genteel way. They own a boarding house. The locals are colorful but desperate. There is nothing left for them in Duluth. It’s dead. As Robert Joy’s narrator– reminiscent of “Our Town” — remarks, the suicide rate is at 100 percent.
McPherson makes you care for the all the people we meet, Hale punctuates their stories with Dylan’s songs. You will know half of them easily, especially Winningham’s winning performances of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young.” The more obscure songs are woven in effortlessly, although not always seamlessly. Sometimes McPherson just says, What the heck, let’s have a song. But their presentation is so clever and artful, he’s excused. You only want to hear more.
Tony Awards, here we come!